This month is American Indian Heritage Month so I wanted to celebrate a classic Indian American actress. I came across this article from the Vintage News website in my Facebook feed last month about Sacheen Littlefeather who passed away on October 2. However, Littlefeather was known as an activist for American Indian rights more than for her acting. But what fascinated me about her story was how in 1973 she made headlines when, in Marlon Brando’s name, she went onstage to decline the Oscar he won for his role in The Godfather.
Photo Credit: Sacheen Littlefeather standing in front of the Oscar statue holding Marlon Brando’s statement declining the Oscar for The Godfather, 45th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, 27 March 1973, UCLA Library Special Collections: TarkusAB/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
The story behind her appearance at the Oscars has now become legendary. Before the 1973 Oscars, an incident occurred at Wounded Knee where Oglala Dakota and the American Indian Movement entered the town and took over in protest of Native American inequality and were eventually driven out by law enforcement. This incident sparked Marlon Brando’s rage and prompted him to declare that if he won the Oscar for The Godfather, he would decline it in protest of how American Indians were portrayed in films and television and treated by the film industry.
When the announcement that Brando had won came, people were surprised to see a young woman appear on the stage in traditional Apache dress, holding up her hand to decline the Oscar statuette. The story goes that Brando prepared a long speech for Littlefeather to deliver but the producers of the show threatened to have her forcefully removed from the stage if she didn’t keep it to thirty seconds. Put in a difficult position, Littlefeather handled it with dignity and grace. She condensed Brando’s wordy speech to a few eloquent and respectful words as to why he was declining the Oscar (you can watch that here). She endured booing and racial slurs from the audience, and John Wayne had to be restrained from attacking her onstage. The incident got her blacklisted from Hollywood and she never worked as an actress again.
Many have criticized Brando, accusing him of being a coward and sending a young woman to do his dirty work. There’s no doubt Littlefeather showed more courage and grace than Brando in facing the hostile Oscar crowd and backstage reporters. But Littlefeather maintained it was her idea to go in place of Brando and she did it to put across her message of inequality and prejudice that many American Indians working in Hollywood had to endure at the time and she never regretted what she did.
Let’s celebrate the courage and dignity of American Indians like Sacheen Littlefeather to stand up for their equality and heritage this month!
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